Why this is the Most Powerful Question to Break Through Intrusive Thoughts

by | Oct 20, 2019 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts | 40 comments

Intrusive thoughts can be nothing short of torture. They enter on fear’s tail, flicking themselves into the mind like a flame cast from fear’s cauldron, and if you don’t have enough water in your well of Self, you’ll quickly find yourself caught in the wildfire of your mind. The untrained mind (and we’re all untrained until fear drags us into its underworld and breaks us open) does what any scared child would do: seeks reassurance by obsessively Googling, asks others for reassurance, journals about the intrusive thought, or tries to argue with it. None of these work. It doesn’t matter if your thought is hanging its hat on relationship anxiety, health anxiety, friendship anxiety, social anxiety, sexuality, or any other anxious hook; when fear takes over it can be difficult to douse the flames.

If seeking reassurance and arguing are ineffective, what are other options? It’s about recognizing that the thought is a distress flare pointing you in the direction of your inner world. For a trained mind and an uncorked heart, a fear-based thought will enter but it will quickly be doused by the calm pool that lives at the center of each and every one of us. When we practice tending to our inner world through practices like meditation and journaling, we learn to access this innate calm and respond to the thoughts with a measured, wise self (the loving inner father that I wrote about two weeks ago). And when we’ve learned to feel our feelings instead of pushing them away, the flames of the fear are quickly doused by the clear waters of the heart.

The fastest and most effective way to rewire and turn inward when an intrusive thought enters is to ask the cut-through question for intrusive thoughts that I often talk about in my work, which is:

“What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

For in order to heal, we have to be willing to drop down from the seductive and compelling chambers of the mind and enter the quiet, tender caves of the heart where the long-forgotten feelings live and wait for our tender attention. This question leads the way.

This isn’t easy work; inner work never is. It’s not a one-time process where you ask the question and your intrusive thought is magically resolved. No, this is daily, ongoing, and multi-layered. And when an intrusive thought is tenacious, it’s essential to keep in mind the following:

Intrusive thoughts are symptomatic of deep, unresolved pain, and the intensity and tenacity of the intrusive thought is in equal measure to the depth of your pain. 

Michael Singer explains this beautifully in The Untethered Soul:

“If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you. That is why our natural tendency to resist is so counterproductive. If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it? Do you actually think that if you resist it will go away. It’s not true. If you release and let the energy pass through, then it will go away. If you relax when the pain comes up inside your heart, and actually dare to face it, it will pass. Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever. Yet every time you resist and close, you are building up the pain inside you. It’s like damming up a stream. You are then forced to use the psyche to create a layer of distance between you who experiences the pain and the pain itself. That is what all the noise is inside your mind: an attempt to avoid the stored pain.”

Intrusive thoughts are the noise in your mind and they’re an attempt to avoid the stored pain. Why do we want to avoid stored pain? Because as a child without loving, grownup arms to hold us through the tempestuous emotional storms that shake through young bodies, the feelings were too overwhelming and we did the most intelligent thing we could do: shut down and travel up to the safer and more predictable realm of the mind.

If we had been taught early in life how to feel our feelings, the stream wouldn’t dam up quite so much (or perhaps even at all). But most of us were raised by adults who were never taught how to feel their feelings, so they shut down and passed the model of emotional shutdown onto you. Even if you had parents who could hold your emotional pain without judgement or shame, if you didn’t see them holding their own pain with self-compassion, the ability to hold your own pain would have been limited, for what we see is more powerful than what we’re explicitly or implicitly taught.

As it is, most people arrive on the shores of adulthood with a halting emotional literacy, and intrusive thoughts are one of psyche’s emissaries that guide them back down out of the head and into the heart. But only if you resist the impulse to jump on the back of the intrusive thought and Google it down into the underworld! That’s why asking yourself the question, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” guides you along the riverways of re-wiring. And then you have to be willing to slow down long enough to listen for what arises.

Note: This post on How to Grieve will help you break down the process of grieving into manageable steps, but keep in mind that when you’ve created lifelong habits to push away pain, you’re not likely to reverse those habits quickly. Rewiring from resisting to welcoming is the work of a lifetime. 

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40 Comments

  1. Wow so wise

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  2. Thank you Sheryl
    Spot on as usual

    Many blessings
    Victoria

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  3. Wow! I’ve been having strong intrusive thoughts related to health anxiety. Thank you for this post.

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    • I’m so glad it was helpful :).

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  4. I read that book The Untethered Soul after finding it one one of your blog post and it was such an amazing book. I had a hard time putting it down. I had some intrusive thoughts enter today and I could feel the pain so I dropped down and breathed into it and asked the question but nothing arose. Sometimes I just dont know what the fear stems from. Im sure one day it will become clear, but I did feel much better after I did the breathing to let it pass. The intrusive thoughts slowed down and then stopped. Thank you for this beautiful writing.

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    • We don’t need to know where the feelings are coming from (that’s the ego’s need to have answers). We only need to meet them with compassion, which you’re beautifully doing.

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  5. Thank you Sheryl for this and the “how to grieve” post . My husband has advanced cancer and my Mom is in palliative care . When I ask the question about what my intrusive thoughts are protecting me from … it’s loneliness . Over the last year I’ve been working on loving myself ( mostly through self-care) which has been beneficial. When I explored the feeling of loneliness tonight (thanks to your blog posts!) it wasn’t so terrifying. I have hope that it can be separated into smaller pieces ( as described in the “how to grieve “ blog). Also I had lost my motivation to journal , and now I’m motivated again . There’s lots to explore . And not in an effort to create more future distraction in my life, but to become more familiar with the pain. I feel comfort and peace tonight due to the process. Thank you again Sheryl .

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    • Sending you so much love and blessings as you walk through this season of loss and continue to attend to your own pain and loneliness. Remember that you’re not alone and it’s okay to reach out to others (it’s not only okay – it’s essential – especially through difficult times). x

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  6. Sheryl thank you for your article. Of course this comes at a great time. I’ve been battling relationship anxiety and for some reason it loves to hang it’s hat on the thought of someone who I used to “date” (he was never an actual ex, but I was very hurt by him). I had more of an infatuation with him rather than real love. He seemed very into me in the beginning but over time he became less interested, said he didn’t want a girlfriend at that time, and he would only keep me around for occasional hook ups. This was years ago and Im wondering if I ever grieved this loss because I met my now boyfriend of almost 5 years during the time I was realizing this other guy and I were never going to happen and I needed to be with someone who was going to choose me as their priority. I even approached this other guy about it and he gave me excuses why he couldn’t be in a relationship with me. I never regretted leaving the other guy behind and choosing my boyfriend because my boyfriend is so good for me and we are great together. I love him (even though my anxiety used to tell me I didn’t). I can’t wait to marry him someday and start a family. But I can’t stop having intrusive thoughts of this other guy/ex.

    Today I was watching a show and in the show this guy went to get his ex back because “he couldn’t stop thinking about her.” This immediately triggered me, my body got all hot, and I couldn’t hold back the tears because I got an intrusive thought of what if you should be with this other guy because you think of him so much. Is this an intrusive thought? Why does this happen? Am I not over it? Once I get a hold of myself I think what is this trying to protect me from? Like this article explains. I feel like maybe it’s not this other guy himself, but maybe it’s something he represents? This anxiety comes after a lot of hard work I’ve done on myself through the help of your articles and therapy. I’ve been good for a while now but it reared it’s ugly head today. What if this isn’t an intrusive thought and it means exactly what it says to me? I just want the thoughts of this other guy to be banished away so I can just live my life happily free of anxiety with my wonderful boyfriend (who by the way is so understanding of this and has loved me through all the anxiety and confusion). I’m very sensitive to the topic of loss. Death and growing up was something I’ve struggled with and even had anxiety over when I was little. Almost to an extreme level. Maybe this intrusive thought is getting me to deal with loss, but I can’t really put my finger on it. Even if I have figured it out, why isn’t it going away? I’ve come a long long way with relationship anxiety, but this is something I just can’t get to the bottom of completely. Any insight on this would be wonderful!

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    • It has nothing to do with the ex and everything to do with the next layer of your inner work, which, as you’ve said, is likely connected to your fear of loss. We don’t heal from insight only. We heal through integrating the fears and grief and learning how to tend to them so they move through our body. This is what I teach in all of my courses and in my book.

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  7. Hi Sheryl,

    I struggle to access the feelings. I feel anxiety all the time but the thoughts aren’t really there. I test by asking ‘do I love him?’ The answer comes back as ‘yes’. So why does the anxiety remain? I ask what the anxiety is protecting me from feeling, but I get nothing but the anxiety. Any help you can offer would be appreciated. Thanks

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    • There’s likely old, unresolved pain and grief that needs your attention. Sometimes it can be difficult to access and this is where working with a skilled and loving therapist is essential.

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      • Hi,

        I’ve tried 3 therapists. They all said they couldn’t help me anymore. I live in a small place- so there aren’t any more try. I’ll keep battling though. Thanks

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  8. Thank you so much for this post.
    ❤️

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  9. This.
    Thank you.

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  10. Amazing read and as i Write this someone that going through a very rough time with intrusive thoughts.
    I am looking to take the relationship anxiety course but two things worry me. Opening my mind and mindfulness have never been something i have believed in (sounds awful). Is this a course that a “Sceptic” could embrace? Also i am going through CBT therapy at the moment and unsure if doing this at the same time would be helpful or beneficial.

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    • Mindfulness isn’t a belief system; it’s a mindset or a way of going through life with your eyes open and aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. My work definitely hinges on opening your mind and adoption a mindset of learning and growing so if you’re attached to remaining where you are the course probably isn’t for you.

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  11. Hi Sheryl,

    This is my first time commenting after taking two of your courses and now reading your book. I can so relate to your work (it truly speaks to me) as have always been a worrier and have suffered with separation anxiety from when I was young through college (although I never considered it anxiety at the time!).

    Intrusive thoughts (gay spike) first hit me out of nowhere when my now husband and I dating about six months and I had just met his entire family during a wonderful weekend. I worked through that over some time and we went on to get engaged, married, buy a house and have two children (all with relatively little anxiety).

    Out of nowhere, the gay spike hit me again last month after the birth of my second child, and I went into a tailspin of anxiety. I know anxiety can hit whenever/wherever but I’ve felt so happy these last 6-7 years, and just as we’ve completed out family, this has hit me like a ton of bricks. Could the fear of losing my precious family triggered this spike?

    With the help of your work, I’m beginning deeper inner work although sometimes I have doubts that “I’m the exception” and that I don’t have significant deep unresolved pain (I had a typical childhood, loving parents, generally happy life with the occasional tough times and loss) and that my intrusive thoughts are my truth. Would this be considered resistance? Is it “normal” for the same intrusive thought to surface years apart?

    Thank you for incredible wisdom.

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    • It’s all normal and I promise you you’re not the exception. Yes, intrusive thoughts can resurface, and yes, it’s likely connected to your fear of loss. Intrusive thoughts are always messengers, distress flares, and protectors. Keep turning inward and you’ll find your next layer of healing.

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  12. What if the intrusive thought is about someone else? I have regular intrusive thoughts about my parents not having enough money to retire, about my husband’s promotion chances and I worry about not being able to give my daughter a sibling as I’m struggling to get pregnant. Does the same apply to this? Could these be stopping me from feeling the pain of not being able to protect the people I love?

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    • Yes, the same processes apply and yes, it’s likely connected to feeling out of control in terms of being able to protect others from pain. There might also be a belief in there that says, “I’m responsible for other people’s pain and well-being.”

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  13. The intrusive thoughts that I have, &, used to think I was “Suffering from, no longer cause me that “Pain”, they remind me that there is “More” for me to Look at “In my Daily Practices” My best Life Lessons Have Been Learned By Working Through “Pain,&,Suffering, brought on by “INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS”

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  14. Thank you si much for your articles, Sheryl!

    I recently discovered your work.
    I have been married for over 18 years and have had relationship anxiety for over 14 years now, although I didn’t recognise it as such.
    Only a few months ago I became aware of this. I have had anxiety-free periods in those years, but the intrusive thoughts about leaving my husband and the anxiety that goes with it, keeps coming back.
    I have been in therapy for years and have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder, but all this therapy has not yet delivered a solution.
    I am very happy to read your articles on the blog, I recognise so much of it and it makes me hopeful that I can overcome my anxiety one day.

    I am now thinking of taking your class to break free from relationship anxiety, but all the excuses you mention in your articles are still holding me back.

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    • I’m so glad you found your way to my work and I strongly encourage you to take the course, Sigrid. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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  15. Thank you, Sheryl.
    I have a question about how I can work towards a creative life while struggling with difficult anxieties? I tend to get very paralyzed from my feelings and can feel very overwhelmed with guilt and shame, which makes me fall back on bad habits of thinking. I’ve tried therapy, practice a lot of yoga and live with pure-o.

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    • The key is in committing to a daily practice, and the key to daily practice is working with resistance. This is the focus of my 9-month courses, but I won’t be starting another round until next September. In the meantime, read through some of my posts on resistance and get into relationship with this most powerful character.

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  16. My fear and intrusive thoughts have been so bad recently. They started out like everyone else’s where I was terrified and crying because I was scared of getting married and worried I didn’t love my fiancé enough. Then it moved on to intrusive thoughts that I am not a good person and I could hurt someone and that terrified me. I worked through that and it doesn’t bother me anymore, but now the anxiety has a new focus: my fiancé. My anxiety has latched onto the idea that my fiancé will at some point shift into this horrible person. He is wonderful and amazing and so kind to me. He deals so well with my anxiety and supports me in everything I do. My anxiety just won’t stop telling me that at some point he is going to turn into a horrific viscous person and I will be trapped. I can’t get it out of my mind even though it goes against every single ounces of logic. I’m scared because it seems like no one has this anxiety and it scares me that my subconscious sees something I don’t (even though all my other fears haven’t been true either) and that even though there’s nothing wrong now that doesn’t mean some hidden personality won’t be unmasked in the future.
    I know how much he loves and cares about me and I love and care about him so much and the relationship is nothing less than happy and healthy and I had no fears about this at all prior to this sudden anxiety that hit.
    I just need some advice and would be nice to know if anyone else has had similar experiences.

    Reply
    • As an update, after talking to my therapist we uncovered an open wound from mental and emotional manipulation and abuse I received from a close friend when I was a teenager which is bleeding into my relationship with my fiancé.
      Thank you Sheryl for this wonderful blog that helps me mentally support myself.

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  17. Sheryl, your posts are God-sent. I had a question about intrusive thoughts. I have been struggling with relationship anxiety since about 6 months into my relationship with my current boyfriend whom I’m planning on marrying. We’ve been together for almost 2 years now and I always thought that getting closer to marriage would make things easier or better, but it seems to be making my anxiety worse. I keep getting caught up in what my relationship “should” look like or what I “should” be feeling, and sometimes I have intrusive thoughts that when we get married, he won’t ever love me in the way I want to be loved and I’ll be constantly disappointed and hurt by him. Which is so hard for me to think about because he loves me in a very quiet and beautiful way, and I’ve loved him for years. He’s my best friend and he always shows up and is constantly standing by me. I Just wondered if you can have intrusive thoughts like this. They are driving me mad. Thank you for your work.

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  18. I’m so glad I’ve found you Sheryl – you blogs have helped me so much but there are moments when I do fall down and in intrusive thoughts come at me so hard. My partner and I have been together for nearly 8 years, we are both 25, we are both currently in therapy going thru the motions of healing from childhood pain. I grew up in a household where my parents leaned on me for emotional support around their marriage and financial issues. I definitely have relationship anxiety and I really wish I didn’t have intrusive thoughts l about my partner because he is such a kind hearted and giving person. For the last couple years he was been struggling to figure out what he wants to do with his life career wise – he comes from a wealthy family so money is not an issue but that also comes with a whole lot of pressure for him. My intrusive thoughts say that he is not good enough and is lazy etc I know intellectually that is is not true and I know this is actually about me and not him SO my question is, do the intrusive thoughts ever go away? They are so horrible and painful and take me out of connection and then lead to other intrusive thoughts as well. Would
    The break free from relationship anxiety course be useful to me? I am just struggling with the knowing vs the feeling of it being ok? Thanks so much, I am so grateful for finding your readings.

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    • Intrusive thoughts go away once you learn how to work with them effectively, which is exactly what the course teaches. You’re in the right place ;).

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  19. I have been dealing with intrusive thoughts for about 6 months. Thankfully because of your work I have been able to unhook almost all of my intrusive thoughts. I unhook from one and get hooked on another. My most recent is “you all aren’t going to last, what if you find out you’re not meant to be, what if when you have kids things fall apart, you’ll probably end up getting a divorce.” I never had a doubt in my mind until about two months before we got married. In that time we bought a house then got married and that’s when my intrusive thoughts started.
    Through your work, I’ve learned a lot about myself, real love, and your work. I understand everything your work says about resistance and ego. I know if you’re in a healthy relationship where both parties are available and willing to always work then you’ll make it. And I KNOW the difference between intuition and anxiety (for the most part) but when would I believe it? How would I know if in the end we won’t last or aren’t meant together. Then what pops in my head is “you have to learn to live in the questions, there’s no right person or “meant to be.”

    Any advice? Some days I can’t tell if it’s intuition or intrusive thoughts but it’s eating me up and our marriage is just so good and I just love him beyond words…

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    • You answered your question here:

      “Then what pops in my head is “you have to learn to live in the questions, there’s no right person or “meant to be.””

      That’s it :).

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      • Sometimes it’s like living with a very annoying friend! Some days I welcome the intrusive thoughts and roll with it. I feel confident that my husband and I are meant to be and we will be ok. Other days it consumes me and makes me feel so depressed. That’s the only way I can separate intrusive thoughts vs truth/intuition. Some days I can’t tell the difference. That ego you talk about then screams, “I just need this ONE answer and I’ll be okay!”
        Thank you so much for your work. 🙂

        Reply

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